"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Go Ahead, Laugh––Life’s A Side Show So Why Not Enjoy It Like Jesus Did

A student in a Masters class at a well-known theological seminary in Washington asked the professor if Jesus had a sense of humor.  The professor who had never been asked this question, stumbled a bit before intoning as a good pastor should, “What does the Bible say?”

The Bible says very little if anything about anyone’s sense of humor whether the God of Abraham or Jesus Christ.  Perhaps the writers of the Old Testament and the Gospels felt that the works of God and Jesus Christ were nothing to laugh at, and that to suggest anything but profound seriousness of intent and character would do an irremediable injustice to both.

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Yet Jesus Christ was a man like any other.  While Early Church theologians debated exactly how he was human – partial, divided, sometimes God, sometimes Man, all God or all Man with a Divine Father – none denied his humanity.  He was born of woman, died at the hands of men, and was human in his enjoyment at the feast of Cana, the Last Supper, and the attentions of Mary Magdalene and the other women who adored him. 

The Gospels are quiet about Jesus as a boy and early adolescent.  His birth is recorded and noted as is his first sermon at 12 years old in the temple, but there is nothing about his growing up – throwing stones at goats to make them jump, pinching girls bottoms, laughing at the the clatter Joseph made as he got up drunkenly from the table and knocked over the soup tureen and the settings.  Of course he laughed at the hunchback who bumped and banged his way through the Jericho market stalls; the cripple who beat out a tattoo with his stick on the cobblestones on the town square; the blind beggar who could tell the sound of a dinar from a sous and yelled at the faux generosity of the alms-giver. 

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These were all his father’s creations and he never wondered why, in His infinite wisdom, he made mistakes when perfection was never beyond him.  Why couldn’t he have made sure that the angels in his heavenly workshop cut the patterns correctly – that eyes were spaced evenly on either side of the nose; that mouths were neither fat and flubbery or thin and ascetic; that ears were of a reasonable size and hung appropriately.  When Jesus looked around him and saw midgets, bearded women who looked like men, no-legged dwarves propelling themselves along the uneven streets of Jerusalem on a rickety wheels; ugly children, mangy, mongrel dogs; phlegmatic, coughing old men; harridans, and succubae, he must have laughed at his Father’s irony. 

What to make of this verse from Genesis 1:1 -  ‘God saw all that he had made, and it was very good’ – when much of what Jesus saw was nothing of the kind or at least questionable.  Of course his Father had created every human being with a divine soul which evened out the superficial irregularities of heavy brows, misshapen mouths, gimps, tics, and bandy legs; but still Jesus had to wonder at his Father’s sense of humor.  He didn’t have to create a race of misfits and side show freaks, but he did.  So how best to honor God’s supreme wisdom than to share in his divine irony?

So, of course Jesus had a sense of humor and had no guilty feelings about it.  There were certainly those who found his never-ending piety funny.  With all the Jews had to worry about – the authoritarianism of the Caesars, the arrogance of the Pharisees, the infighting at the temple, and the day-to-day management of a poor existence – they must have turned to humor for comic relief.  Is it a coincidence that the best and most hilarious Jewish humor today is self-deprecating and modestly ironic?  No, Jesus could not be taken completely seriously.  Although he was a Jew making trouble for the Jews with the Romans, his triumphal entry into the Holy City on an ass – an dramatic show of false modesty and pretension – had its humorous side.  The Messiah as a PR genius, entering Jerusalem at exactly the right time when the press and the people would be waiting.  How self-important!

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Jesus must have thought his fellow Jews ridiculous as well – nodding, rocking, and wailing in their prayer shawls, intoning outdated Hebrew prayers, ignorant of their pomposity, silly arrogation of religious authority, and distanced from anything real – like a woman, a good meal, or a bath.
So the Jerusalem of Jesus’ time must have been quite a show – no more than today’s circus, but no less.  The same parade of physical, social, and emotional deformity that is found in any community.  Human beings acting outrageously, compulsively, obsessively.

There was a woman on Upper Broadway near Columbia who dressed in black and made military turns at 112th and 113th street.  Back and forth, marching to a demanding drummer, avoiding the cracks but never losing her stride and her meter.  Only at the end of the day did she disappear, made a final turn west before disappearing into the park.  As nutty as a fruitcake, tolerated and enjoyed by the Upper West Side, a schizophrenic but harmless pet. 

Jerusalem, Jericho, Hebron, and Bethlehem all had their Black Marias, and Jesus loved his Father’s display of wonderful humor and irreverence.  Who said that God – or he, Jesus himself – had to be all-out, permanently, and sanctimoniously serious?  No.  The world was created in such a weird hodge-podge that one had to laugh and marvel.  This was the lesson of his Father’s creation, not some punctilious version of reality. 

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Were the feelings of the cripples, the hunchback, the louche, and the cross-eyed, hurt at Jesus’ laughter? Of course not.  As good servants of God, they knew that He had created them for a purpose, albeit perplexing; and if they had to stumble through life and be laughed at, so be it.  It was God’s will.  In God’s perfect world – one created with the most exaggerated caricatures and the most impossibly insuperable divides – then one’s lot was to be accepted if not savored.

Love and compassion were the lessons most often taken from the Christian Bible; and there was certainly room in the interpretation of God’s creation for a little sympathy for those less fortunate; but up to a point.  Was there some moral or ethical problem with hilariously laughing at a blind beggar fighting with peas on his plate as long as one gave generously for the poor at Mass? Or even if one kept his pocketbook closed and simply laughed?

Jesus had the divine perspicacity to know that future generations would misinterpret and distort his words.  Of course he was not condemning the rich with his parable about the camel and the eye of the needle, only issuing a warning – an obvious, overvalued, and overblown one if the truth were to be known – about losing one’s spiritual way.  In the same vein there was no problem with vaudeville impersonations of the ignorant, backwoods, country rube poor who who drank from the martini snifter, snacked on the potpourri, and got drunk at weddings.  Or the deaf who couldn’t hear roll call; the mute who couldn’t get the girl for want of a good line; the left-handed cripple using a right-handed scissor.

In today’s America, such fun is hands off.  The nation of victimhood can tolerate no offense.  God created all men equal, so all merit equal treatment, favor, and opportunity; and any suggestion of inequality or disfavor should be roundly censured.  The physically deformed, the psychotic, the horribly dependent, the clutchy Main Line matron, the Jewish-American princess, and the three-ring circus of badly-cut and –sewn human beings must be treated with deference, respect, and closed mouths. Intimations of humor are treasonous.

Jesus would be having a good laugh at all this, and wondering how his simple words about respect and compassion had gotten so distorted.  In his world of pre-Medieval Palestine there was no such delicacy.  Alms were given to the poor.  One made one’s way through life’s travails without thinking too much of the other; and a a good laugh – like a a pint of bitter – went a long way to getting through.  What had happened?  God, his Father, had knowingly created an unequal, hilariously distorted world.  Whether or not he had a purpose in so doing; or whether his divine intent was to be made known independent of the craziness of the world he created is irrelevant.  We have inherited a three-ring circus from God Almighty and he has given no instructions as to how we should behave.
Yet anyone paying attention understands that both God and his Only Begotten Son had marvelous senses of humor.  Laughing is to celebrate God’s creation, not to deny it.

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